The Peace Corps, a volunteer program that aims to spread American goodwill and soft power, is abruptly pulling out of Kazakhstan.
Officials in Astana, as well as Peace Corps representatives, downplay any notion of tension surrounding the volunteers’ presence in Kazakhstan, and instead portray the pullout announcement as the natural outgrowth of the country’s spreading prosperity. However, local observers in seeking an explanation for the unexpected development are looking at other potential factors, including sexual assaults, the threat of terrorism, and an uncomfortable operating environment, in which allegations of espionage have been aired in the mass media.
The Peace Corps announced November 18 that it had “suspended its volunteer activities in Kazakhstan based on a number of operational considerations.” After 18 years in the country, the agency is pulling out 117 volunteers, pointing out that “Kazakhstan is one of the most developed countries in the world to host a Peace Corps program.”
Kazakhstan’s Education and Science Ministry voiced a similar line the same day, describing the suspension of Peace Corps activities as “a rather logical step” in light of Kazakhstan’s “great progress in the political and socio-economic development over the 20 years of its independence.”
The Peace Corps dates back to the Kennedy administration, and the program this year is marking its 50th anniversary. Volunteers spend 27 months in a host nation, working in various spheres, including healthcare, education and economic development.
Peace Corps representatives did not respond to two EurasiaNet.org requests for clarification of the reasons for the suspension of the Kazakhstani program. A US Embassy spokesman declined to comment.
The explanation about Kazakhstan’s relatively advanced state of economic development failed to resonate with some uprooted volunteers. “The [education] minister’s line of reasoning is … spin for an event that blackens all parties,” Casey Michel, a Peace Corps volunteer English teacher in northern Kazakhstan, wrote on the Registan website.
Volunteers also suggest that if the pullout was based on the country’s development level, then a phased exit would have been planned rather than an abrupt curtailment.
Michel and another volunteer, Lisa Murray, a youth development worker in southern Kazakhstan, suggest that safety concerns could be playing a role in the pullout. There appears to be a rising terrorist threat in Kazakhstan in the light of a spate of recent attacks. There are additionally concerns over the reportedly high instances of sexual assaults against female Peace Corps volunteers. “Kazakhstan does currently rank number 1 among all Peace Corps countries for incidents of rape or sexual assault,” Murray said in a blog posting on November 17, claiming knowledge of four incidents within a year.
She added that she does “not believe that Kazakhstan is an overly dangerous country,” has “never truly felt threatened or unsafe,” and has experienced mainly “warmness, kindness, and hospitality.”
Michel said Kazakhstan’s Peace Corps volunteers had been victimized by “one rape or serious sexual assault per month since June,” while former volunteer Rebecca Gong wrote on her blog on November 18 that “if you were a girl who signed up for PC KZ [Kazakhstan] last year, you had a roughly 8.3 percent chance of being raped.”
Without a response from the Peace Corps, such claims are impossible to verify. Tengri News reported that a volunteer was sexually assaulted in Karaganda Region earlier this month.
Sexual assaults of Peace Corps volunteers have hit headlines in the United States this year, with a damning expose broadcast on ABC about the organization’s treatment of victims. That broadcast prompted Congressional hearings and an overhaul of Peace Corps policies. Measures included establishing new guidelines, forming a Sexual Assault Panel, signing a memorandum with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, and hiring a victim advocate. Volunteer safety “is the single most important priority of the agency,” Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said on September 2.
But sexual crimes are not the only problem the Peace Corps has faced in Kazakhstan. “For the months, even years, leading up to this decision to close, PC KZ had been having myriad problems with government suspicion and push-back,” says Gong.
Michel puts it more bluntly: “KNB [Kazakhstan’s intelligence service] agents sitting in classrooms. Upper-level ministers all but booting volunteers from numerous oblasts [regions]. Questions of espionage and revolutionary tactics.”
The agency has also been smeared in the media. A report last month in a local newspaper, the Aktobe Times, questioned whether “the all-perceiving eyes and sensitive ears of foreign intelligence officers have not been sent onto our territory” under the guise of Peace Corps volunteers.
As Gong points out, the logic “seems ludicrous” since the Peace Corps operates at the invitation of national governments. It left Russia in 2003 after being accused by Russian officials of espionage, a charge firmly denied by US officials.
In a twist that revived memories of classic Cold War espionage stings, in 2008 Peace Corps volunteer Anthony Sharp was arrested in possession of explosives at a mine in northern Kazakhstan. In a leaked 2009 diplomatic cable, then US Ambassador Richard Hoagland said the case “appeared to be a classic Soviet-style set-up, likely orchestrated by the pro-Russian old-guard at the Committee for National Security (KNB) and aimed at discrediting the Peace Corps and damaging bilateral relations.” Sharp was convicted but freed and sent home in 2009.
In a telling aside in the cable, Hoagland noted being told that “there are ‘some in the government’ who want to know how long the [Peace Corps] agreement is valid for, and how Kazakhstan can terminate it.”
Those elements of the establishment who wished to see the back of the Peace Corps will no doubt be celebrating as it pulls out.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.